The Contenders: Briscoe blossoms into title force
"Milwaukee was the most special win of my entire career, let alone of that season," said Briscoe, who turned 28 on Sept. 24. "It was a breakthrough moment where I was having some bad luck at the beginning of the year and finally I got that race win. It was on an oval as well and I think it really catapulted me on to having a successful remaining 2008."
The positive momentum of 2008 segued into a successful 2009 in which the Australian has scored three victories, 12 top-five finishes (seven runner-up finishes) in 16 races, four pole starts and 636 laps led. Briscoe, who in 2007 was looking to get back into the IndyCar Series full time, is staring at an opportunity to claim his first driver championship. He enters the season finale Oct. 10 at Homestead-Miami Speedway trailing front-running Scott Dixon by eight points and Dario Franchitti by three.
"It's really exciting," said Briscoe, who wound up fifth in the '08 title race in his first full season with Team Penske. "At this point, it's a highlight in my career. It's going to be close, but the team's been doing an unbelievable job this year and I feel as though I've stepped it up this year. Experience is the big thing; experience with the right people. I've been learning from the right people and really working hard on improving my game at becoming a better driver.
"With experience comes confidence, and you need that going into these weekends where they are so short and there isn't a whole lot of time to prepare. You need to come out of the box strong, and I think that's been a big difference this year."
Briscoe was short on confidence after a horrifying experience at Chicagoland Speedway in September 2005. The Target Chip Ganassi Racing car he was driving clipped the wheel of another car and vaulted into the catch fence between Turns 3 and 4.
"When I was airborne and could see the sky, I knew it wasn't going to be pretty," said Briscoe, who suffered non-life-threatening injuries. "When I was in the ambulance and I could move all the important limbs I knew I would be OK."
A teammate of Dixon for '05, Briscoe was not retained by the team for his sophomore season. With his injuries healed but self-confidence still bruised, Briscoe was a journeyman in 2006 - competing in four IndyCar Series races with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (high finish of third at Watkins Glen), Team Australia in the A1GP championship, two Champ Car starts with RuSPORT and the Rolex Grand Am Series.
"The thought of getting back on the ovals though was a little daunting," said Briscoe, who ran at Nashville and Milwaukee. "I took it upon myself really to say if 'I don't do this, no one is going to feel as though personally I can go back and do it.'
"I really felt like the teams weren't considering me because either they thought I'd be scared or the same thing would happen and they didn't want to take that responsibility. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing gave me this opportunity."
And he made a positive impact in a part-time role. He accepted an offer from Penske Racing to compete in the American Le Mans Series for 2007 - without the guarantee of an IndyCar Series ride. The move paid off when Briscoe was chosen to fill the seat of Sam Hornish Jr., who transferred to the Penske Racing stock car operation after the season.
It was the opportunity Briscoe was seeking, and he fully understood he'd have to prove himself again with the historic Indy car racing team.
"Obviously, you come to a team like this and you want to believe that you're capable of winning championships and winning Indy 500s," he said. "When I came on board on the IndyCar side at the beginning of last year, I had really no expectations of winning the championship that year just because I felt so much like a rookie."
Scoring his maiden win at Milwaukee - the 300th race victory for Roger Penske as an owner - and adding victories at Mid-Ohio and the exhibition race in his Australian homeland gave rise to prognostications of championship contender. For '09, consistency was the objective. Accomplish that and the championship door would open.
"It's something I've definitely been working hard on over the last few years," Briscoe said. "(Penske Racing president) Tim (Cindric), (teammate) Helio (Castroneves), (consultant) Rick (Mears) have all helped, but probably most importantly has been Roger in my ear for the last three years at every single race. Having him as my strategist at ALMS and the last two years in IndyCar, he's really helped me strategize each race and go at the right time and wait when I need to wait. If you look at my past, it's probably exactly what I needed."
On five 1.5-mile ovals this year that are similar to Homestead-Miami Speedway, Briscoe has two victories (Kentucky and Chicagoland), an average starting position of 3.4 and finish of 5.2.
"I think I've improved, and certainly gained confidence going into a race weekend on these types of tracks," Briscoe said. "We've had great runs at all of them this year -- Kansas, Texas, Kentucky and Chicago -- so I feel really good about closing out the season with a win."
That almost assuredly would create a double celebration in Victory Circle at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"Winning the championship would be huge; the biggest achievement in my career to this point," he said. "It would be awesome to come back to try to do it again next year."
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